Live Free or Die Hard

Or, Die Hard times 4, which is what I hear some are calling it. It’s been a while since I saw any of the first three, but it’s entirely possible that more stuff was destroyed in this one than in all those three put together. I understand that audiences get jaded, and you need to add more thrills, but wow.
Still, it actually isn’t just a blow-things-up movie; there is a plot, and a decent one, though it will feed any paranoiac’s wildest fantasies. It’s based on an article called “A Farewell to Arms”, by John Carlin, a speculative piece written for Wired magazine a decade ago. You’d never know it was based on something that old, really. The technology may grow, by leaps and bounds, but the big problem that goes with it is, in the end, the same old problem: anything anyone can make, someone else can break.
And today, most of the making and breaking involves computers. Matt Farrell is a white-hat hacker (I’m not sure that’s the current term any more, but you know what I mean) who gets pulled unwittingly into the biggest computer game of all time. He’s played by Justin Long, whose first big movie role was as Brandon, the computer-geek hero kid in Galaxy Quest (I just love that movie), so I guess things haven’t changed much for him. Except he’s a little older and cuter — I think it’s the sarcasm, which I always find attractive.
Anyway, his security algorithm is being used by Timothy Olyphant, as the big bad villain, though he seems to consider himself just another working guy who happens to have the plan — and the capability — to shut down the entire U.S. infrastructure. After getting bits of code from a group of hackers, he starts killing them all so as not to leave any loose ends — always a good plan for the evil genius — but when they go after Matt, the Bruce himself is there, and he’s been told to bring Matt in alive. Guess who wins that argument?
Matt is brought before FBI Deputy Director Bowman (Cliff Curtis, who I also reviewed in Fracture — I like him, actually, he needs more roles) who is struggling against the chaos the cyber-terrorists are causing. (Has anyone else noticed that the bad guys these days seem to speak French a lot? I’m not sure why that is, but the trend continues here…) They shut down power grids, crash the New York Stock Exchange, and give every car at every intersection in every major city a green light, all at the same time. Ouch.
The government is scrambling to control the damage and save lives, and they have no time or resources to spare, really, for going after the root of the threat. So though Bowman does what he can, there’s only one lone computer hacker and one lone New York cop to stop Big Bad and his team. Guess who wins?
The audience was really into this movie, I must say. And there were some very good lines, and some nice little unexpected bits amongst all the rather predictable mayhem. Kevin Smith (Yep, that Kevin Smith, of Clerks and Silent Bob fame) has a nice little part as one of Matt’s fellow hackers, the Warlock, which I’ll bet he had fun with. Mary Elizabeth Winstead, as the Bruce’s daughter Lucy, actually gets a pretty good part, which doesn’t often happen with the hero’s dependents, and never once falls into damsel in distress mode, which was absolutely great. Though the Bruce is still the Bruce, he does need some tough youth on his side.

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The Bruce gives Matt his first lesson in the fine art of Dying Hard.

I was worried that he might seem too old for the film, actually, but that didn’t happen. I couldn’t understand why he didn’t pass out at times from the sheer abuse of all those landings on concrete, the various explosions he was caught in, and of course the bullet holes, but I would have wondered that about a twenty-something. That’s just the standard movie-hero toughness. But the character has the wisdom of experience, if not the energy of youth, and it really makes for a good sort of hero overall.
So, though I don’t want to support the Hollywood tendency to assume that if one explosion is good, seventy-three must be better, I’m giving this three and a quarter idols. It still has a bit much of that sequel feel to it, but considering what fourth movies in a series are sometimes like, I’m not going to complain about that here. I have a feeling that, like Kevin Smith, everyone just tried to have fun with it, which is the best way to make the audience have fun too, I think. The only thing I didn’t have fun with was all the computers blowing up. That’s making me nervous…

Cavalcade of Depression!

I was justing finishing off a pile of fragments I had on my desktop today. Wow, some seriously dark stuff…


  • A Turn for the Worse Piano, Violin, and Clarinets. Years from now – this will be classified as a “fragment”. But it is still long enough to be useful for some applications
  • Trio for Piano, Cello, and Clarinet Sounds like someone is leaving and feeling bad about it.
  • Grave Matters Holy lush strings! Good background. The front and back sections are independently loopable.
  • Simple Duet A simple piano and violin duet. Still getting used to that cursed violin. Touchy, touchy instrument, that violin is. This one isn’t so depressing as the others.

What a fun, fun day!

1408

Yep. I went to see a horror movie. That’s spooky right there. It’s based on a Stephen King short story of the same name, which I’ve never read, because to be on the safe side, I’ve always assumed Stephen King was too scary for me. He’s even scary in real life, apparently — I once knew a guy who grew up with Stephen King, and it sounds like that whole town was seriously creepy. But I really like John Cusack, and I survived The Messengers all right, and though I try to avoid seeing reviews before picking out a film, I couldn’t help but realize just how bad Evan Almighty was. So 1408 it was.
John plays Mike Enslin, a writer who, after turning out one of those “stunning debut novels” that “heralds the arrival of a powerful new voice”, sinks into the realm of the new age section and the bargain tables, churning out book after book on hauntings: the 10 Scariest Hotels, 10 Scariest Graveyards, etc. He’s never seen a ghost, or indeed anything that really required explanation, apparently, but he gives his readers what they want — stories about strange atmospheres and eerie noises.
But he himself wallows in depression, drinking a lot (which you’d think might make him see a few things right there) and wearing his cynicism and annoyance with the world like a suit of armor. He lives like a beach bum in California, and dresses kind of like a regular bum, though I did like the baseball cap that read “Paranoia is total awareness”. It’s all to help him forget the pain of the daughter he lost. When he gets a postcard of the Dolphn Hotel in New York, telling him not to go to room 1408, it’s all just part of the job to him, another place trying to build up their business with a good ghost story.

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It’s just so hard to find a good hotel room in New York these days.

Samuel L. Jackson (Gerald Olin, manager of the Dolphin) is billed in this movie also, which is actually kind of strange. He has one really good long scene with John at the beginning, before things get creepy, and then one odd little scene later, and that’s it. He’s really intense, as always, and scary in his own right as he tries to persuade John not to stay in the room, but it seems like something of a waste of Mr. Jackson’s talent. Tony Shalhoub (Men in Black and TV’s Monk — he’s from Wisconsin, just like me!) is also here, but don’t go for popcorn, or even blink hard, or you’ll miss his bit of exposition.
You know that John ends up in the room, though, in spite of Mr. Jackson’s best scares. Even a thick file folder full of pictures of all the gruesome deaths, stretching back 95 years, doesn’t dissuade him — not because he’s particularly brave, but just because he doesn’t believe in anything anymore.
This was, overall, a pretty creepy movie. But it’s more creepy in the sense of a drunk’s visions while in the grip of the DT’s, or someone having a really bad trip. It’s a tour of John’s subconscious, really, and the horror there is different than the standard horror movie stuff– it’s all more psychological horror, except for a few instances when the film lapses into slight silliness. The “Claw Hammer Maniac”, for instance, really wasn’t as scary as you might expect from the name — he made me jump, but only because he popped up out of nowhere. The really frightening things were much more subtle — mints appearing on the pillow out of nowhere, the TV blaring to life for no apparent reason, and the scariest thing of all: repeated playings of “We’ve Only Just Begun”, by the Carpenters. Yikes.
But aside from a few effects that just didn’t work out as they should have, it was pretty good. I’m giving this one three and a half idols. The film’s almost wall-to-wall John Cusack, which is fine with me — he’s a really good, low-key actor, which is what this movie needs. He plays a great cynic who suddenly finds out there’s more left in the world than he thought — not necessarily such good stuff, but at least more than he’d had before. And the moral of the movie is simple: When Samuel L. Jackdson tells you not to do something, you listen to the man. Seriously.

Fantastic Four: The Rise of the Silver Surfer

There are just so many movies these days to feed the inner comic geek! Strangely, I never got around to watching the first Fantastic Four movie, but I don’t think that mattered much this time. The FF was never a favorite of mine, but I’ve read enough of their comics to know what it means when “Latveria” shows up in the captions, and who always follows the Silver Surfer around, so I was pretty prepared for this sequel.
Too prepared, maybe. More than once I knew what people were going to say before they said it. I’d like to think that’s a sign of familiar characters well-written, but I think it’s more a sign of a predictable script. Still, they throw you pretty much right into the action, and you’re not likely to get bored watching.
Earth is in trouble. A strange, comet-like UFO has been spotted, and everywhere the thing goes, around the globe, bizarre things happen. The pyramids in Egypt are coated with snow. Power fails. And huge craters, 200 meters across, appear and look like they go all the way through the earth’s crust. That’s a looong way. Oh, and Reed and Sue are trying to plan a wedding in the midst of a total media circus. Obviously this crisis calls for some super-heroics.
Now, the guy playing Reed Richards (Ioan Gruffudd) is too young, but at least he can manage Reed’s super-brains. Jessica Alba, however, is totally unconvincing as a blonde, and I’m not sure why they bothered when they didn’t make her brother Johnny (Chris Evans) blond also. Ben Grimm (Michael Chiklis) is a pretty convincing Thing, though, and most of the scenes of he and Johnny bantering are good, and very much like the comic. Other such scenes just kind of feel like they were forced into the script, and were vaguely embarrassing, but on the whole, the actors have the camaraderie down, and it was nice to see.

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The Human Torch and the Silver Surfer have a little heart-to-heart in the stratosphere.

The chaos (the environmental chaos, not the wedding planning chaos) is apparently being caused by a silvery man who rides around on a silvery, shiny surfboard. Hence, the Silver Surfer. (Duh. He’s played by two people: Doug Jones, who seems to be mainly a bit player and voice actor, and Laurence Fishburne as the Surfer’s voice. I never would have guessed that, though, because he really doesn’t sound like Laurence Fishburne.) Just like our heroes, he’s also cosmically charged, and an early encounter with him leaves Johnny’s powers unstable and prone to ‘swapping’ with his teammates. I remember that sort of thing happening in the comics also — poor Johnny often seemed to end up being the klutz, accidentally making things more difficult for the team, and that’s what happens here, all right.
The U.S. Army gets involved too, of course, and shoots missles and yells orders and does all the other things you expect but which never seem to help. It’s Sue that finally manages to make some sort of connection with the Surfer, because it’s always the pretty girl who gets through to the marauding, misunderstood bad guy, and they discover that they have a lot more to worry about than one surfing alien. My fellow comic geeks (and anyone who’s been looking for spoilers on the net) will know all about Galactus, who, thankfully, doesn’t look a thing like he does in the comics.
Does it work as an action movie? Absolutely. It’s a semi-mindless action-fest with good effects, just made for summer release on the big screen with giant stereo speakers everywhere. It isn’t much else, though. So two and three-quarter idols for this one. It really can be a fun movie if you don’t think about it too much, but I just can’t rank anything three full idols if I’m not interested in owning it on DVD, and on a smaller screen, this just wouldn’t have the visual kick it needs. From what I’ve heard about the first movie, it’s at least better than that, but that isn’t saying much. If you really want a good team super-hero flick, go rent X-Men 2 and watch it on the biggest screen you can find.

Ocean’s Thirteen

Okay, I realize this is going to be a total blockbuster. If you sit quietly for a moment, you can probably hear the distant ‘ka-ching’ of this film raking in the ticket money. The problem is, I’m not exactly the best person to be reviewing it. I did see Ocean’s 11 (both versions, actually), but that was a long time ago. And I didn’t like either all that much, so I didn’t watch Ocean’s 12. Frankly, 11 was already so crowded, I thought adding one more star would make the movie implode or something. And… I don’t like George Clooney. Yes, I am female. I just don’t think he’s particularly handsome or charming. I read something once where they compared him (favorably!) to Cary Grant, and nearly fainted on the spot. Those of you who don’t understand what I mean need to go watch Notorious.
I’m also kind of indifferent to Brad Pitt. Both he and George Clooney seem like good enough actors, though I’ve only ever seen them playing the same kinds of parts all the time. I guess if you’re good at it, stick with it… However, on the major plus side, this film does have Matt Damon in it. Yummy. If they ever do an Ocean’s 14 (which I have to pray they won’t, because that film really would implode), then they need to give Matt much, much more screen time. Seriously.
Okay, to the plot: One of the original Eleven, Reuben (Elliot Gould, wearing glasses that look like they should make him fall on his nose) has been double-crossed and generally taken to the cleaners by his partner in a new casino, Willy Bank (Al Pacino, and I can hardly believe that they’ve already made two of these movies without him). Danny Ocean and friends, of course, can’t let this slide. But Bank is a high roller — a really, really high roller, so he’s hard to tackle. Not that this stops our heroes, of course. Bank’s weakness? His ego, which is probably true for anyone who’s ever earned more than four or five million dollars in his or her life. I hate to think what a Vegas billionaire’s ego is like.

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See, the poster’s already at critical mass, and I only count twelve people.

Now, this is of necessity a huge scheme. The plan they settle on is to sabotage Bank’s casino on opening night by rigging the games — not so the team wins, but just so the house loses — which must be easier than trying to get one person to win, but still a daunting task. They work out ways to rig each game individually, mostly retreating back to old-fashioned methods like weighted roulette balls because the casino is so high-tech. But the real problem is the supercomputer security system, Greco, named for its creator, Greco Montgomery (played by Julian Sands, who I also wish would’ve had more screen time). Greco monitors all the games down to the last detail, and it’s so high-tech, it’s an A.I. It thinks and reasons.
Just a bit of an aside: I don’t think they used nearly so many gadgets in the first film of this trilogy, though I may be misremembering — all I remember for sure is that Matt was a shy pickpocket. (He’s still shy here, but he seems to have forgotten how to pick pockets.) But you should not only suspend your disbelief for this film, you should probably send it over to a different movie. They have gadgets for everything. X-ray machines that look like a piece of cloth, magnetrons that look like cell phones — they even have some sort of super-pheremone-releasing thing that’s applied as a patch to the skin, and apparently can make anyone turn into a raving sex machine. They make Matt use that last one on Ellen Barkin, who plays Bank’s right-hand woman, Abigail Sponder, though I don’t see why. Silly fake nose or no silly fake nose, he’s still Matt Damon.
So they figure out ways to rig all the games, and, since they can’t outwit Greco, they decide to do the next best thing, which is to force it to reboot, thus allowing them somewhere around two minutes to make the house lose big. That doesn’t seem like much time, but in Vegas, it’s enough. This requires more gadgets, of course, including one that has to be maneuvered into place on a semi, and, well, it all gets wilder from there. That’s without even mentioning the contrived side plot where Virgil (Casey Affleck, who has a very bizarre part to play here but still does much better than his brother ever could) starts a labor movement in a Mexican plastics manufacturing company. I told you it was contrived.
You have to remember that there just had to be all kinds of fun references to past movies that I didn’t catch, so people familiar with the first two will probably enjoy this one even more. Still, even for me, it was a fun, energetic sort of film — you know a gadget will save the day, but how can they possibly do it in time? It’s a lot like a Bond movie in that respect, and the superspy himself wouldn’t have been out of place here. There’s a lot going on, lots of faces you recognize, all the glitz you can handle, and more misdirection than any Vegas magic act.
So three and a quarter idols for me, but if you like George Clooney, then you should probably consider it three and a half idols. It’s pretty much all flash and no substance, but the flash is so good you don’t mind much. I do hope, though, that the movie’s way off base in how it portrays the safety standards at Las Vegas hotels, or one of these days, we may lose an entire generation of high rollers and Texas Hold-Em’ champs to just one little earthquake.

Mr. Brooks

Kevin Costner is Mr. Brooks, successful businessman, family man, and the Portland Chamber of Commerce’s Man of the Year. WIlliam Hurt is his sinister, deadly alter ego, Marshall. And Demi Moore is — in another movie altogether, playing homicide detective Tracy Atwood. We’ll get back to her later.
Mr. Brooks (and yes, his name is Earl) and his lovely wife Emma (Marg Helgenberger, and thank god they didn’t cast some ridiculously young woman forced to pretend she’s old enough to be the mother of a college student) live the usual life of the moderately wealthy, with Mrs. Brooks blissfully unaware that her loving husband is actually the notorious Thumbprint Killer. They always are.
Mr. Brooks has sometimes fairly long conversations with his other self, Marshall, but everyone seems blissfully unaware of those also, because this isn’t a comedy. William Hurt does laugh rather a lot, but not at things that would normally be considered funny by a sane person. Marshall is a lot of things to Mr. Brooks — best friend, confidante, fount of useful information — but mainly he’s the little voice you sometimes hear about on the news that tells serial killers to kill.
Mr. Brooks tries to resist, he does. He goes to AA meetings (a breach of protocol, of course, but there isn’t a Serial Killers Anonymous, so he had to make do), recites the Serenity Prayer over and over, and swears to both himself and Marshall that he’ll never kill again. But he gives in. They always do.

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Don’t look behind you! William Hurt just might be there…

After being clean, so to speak, for two years, he kills again, with Marshall egging him on. That’s when everything goes wrong. Suddenly the police aren’t too far away from him, he’s got a slightly geeky voyeur blackmailing his way into all Mr. Brooks’ secrets, and William Hurt always there, hurling insults and generally being his evil genius. I might turn into a serial killer myself, if I had William Hurt constantly telling me to be one. Oh, and his teenage daughter shows up, having dropped out of college and gotten herself pregnant. Even serial killers have some normal problems. Sort of.
Meanwhile, over in the other movie, Demi “I wanna be an action star” Moore is getting divorced from her slimy second husband, who wants millions from her very considerable wealth, chasing down escaped serial killer “The Hangman” (mean and scary, but not like any serial killer I’ve ever heard about), and getting run over and shot at a lot, to prove she can handle it. (Actually, given how many serial killers Oregon apparently has, they do need tough cops.) Oh, and sometimes, when she can squeeze it in to her busy schedule, she dreams of catching the elusive Thumbprint Killer. But basically all her scenes could have been edited into a different movie, one with lots of blood and car chases and shooting.
You can tell they tried to integrate them — Mr. Brooks’ movie gets a lot bloodier at the end, and there’s a token scene where he calls Demi — but honestly, they’re two different films stuck together for the most part. One is a psychological thriller, a look at the twisted psyche of a demented killer, and the other is an unfocused sort of drama about your standard homicide cop with too much emotional baggage. She doesn’t even seem to be a good homcide detective — I mean, they talk about how many killers she’s caught, and she gets all the intuitive leaps of logic, but considering her James Bond-ish, threaten-everyone-until-they-break style, I never really believed her as a successful police officer in any kind of real world. She acted the part as written quite well, really, but sadly, it just wasn’t written quite well.
Demi Moore’s movie gets two idols — it’s entertaining in parts, but too thrown together and too predictable overall. Kevin Costner’s (and William Hurt’s) movie gets three and a quarter. (That averages out to two and three-eighths, if you’re curious, but doing that didn’t seem quite fair.) It would have been three and a half for the boys, but they just had to start throwing in lots of blood, which kind of spoiled the mood. But there were some nice little twists and good acting all around, which was a relief. Sometimes Costner seems like a really good actor, and other times it just pains me to watch him, but here he was definitely the former. And someone had a lot of fun on the camera work, playing with reflections of Marshall, one persona in the shadow, the other in the light, that sort of thing. I just hope the DVD release has the option for the Demi-free version.